Saudi Vision 2030 represents another leap forward for Saudi women’s rights. It is the newest extension of the Saudization program. The program seeks to expand the percentage of Saudi nationals in the workforce including an increase from 22 to 30 percent of Saudi women in the workforce. (Khan, 2018)In August 2019, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman officially announced the extension of rights to Saudi women. This extension included: “the right to travel without a male relative’s permission, to receive equal treatment in the workplace and to obtain family documents from the government.” (Hubbard & Yee, 2019) Women will no longer need a guardians’ permission to accept employment under the new extension of rights which will greatly improve the well-being of Saudi women who were often forced to remain in abusive situations because of economic necessity.
The women’s rights movement has made great strides recently in Saudi Arabia and it will be interesting to continue to observe future developments. But there are still significant barriers facing Saudi women before they can truly be equal members of Saudi society. Certainly, women will face push back from more traditional male members of Saudi society and even from their female elders who still adhere to the more traditional Islamic view that honors women solely as wives and mothers. “It is a great breakthrough. It was bound to happen, but these changes are always done at a time when the people are more apt to accept the changes, otherwise they will fail.” – Hoda al-Helaissi, a member of the kingdom’s advisory Shura Council. (Hubbard & Yee, 2019)
There can be little doubt that Saudi Arabia’s Women’s Rights Movement has met some pretty significant milestones in the last decade in education, political activities, access to the workplace, driving, and lessening of male guardianship rules. Yet many other nations point to Saudi Arabia as a leader in human rights violations and particularly the oppression of women’s rights. Is it fair to continue to point to Saudi Arabia as a bad example? Is it truly that far behind other nations on women’s rights? There have been women heads of states for decades now, history records the following women who have been state leaders: Indira Gandhi – India, Golda Meir – Israel, Margaret Thatcher – United Kingdom, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir – Iceland, Benazir Bhutto – Pakistan, Mary Robinson – Ireland, Kim Campbell – Canada. (Wills, Smith, & Hicks, 2016)There are currently 13 nations that are led by a female politician: Iceland, Germany, New Zealand, Marshall Islands, Namibia, Bangladesh, Nepal, Estonia, Croatia, Norway, Ethiopia, Taiwan, and Lithuania. (Gallagher, 2019)
Saudi Arabia’s women’s rights movement still has a way to go to achieve the level of equality that is enjoyed by American and other westernized women; but it has momentum behind it, and it has achieved major milestones in recent years. It has been decades since the U.S. women’s rights movement has attained any significant new achievements. Saudi Arabia’s next ruler supports expansion of women’s rights and hopefully this support continues into the future.
The Saudi women’s rights movement has generated plenty of headlines over the last few years as they have gained more rights to access the work force, to vote, to drive, to more educational opportunities, and the lessening of male guardianship over women. But what has been the overall effect of these changes been to Saudi society? While these changes have been exciting to watch and show that even the most conservative of societies can evolve to embrace equality, their constitution – the Basic Law – has not been permanently amended to codify these changes as permanent. It would only take an accident, assassination, or Coup d’état to bring in a hardline regime that could erase all of the progress that has currently been made. Even the most hardline regime would face a difficult task if it were unequivocally proven that these changes have improved the economic, political, and social spheres of Saudi Arabia.
Multiple studies have proven that educating women and allowing a higher percentage of women into the workplace have resulted in improvements to a nation’s economic output and overall health of women. In regions, that have increased the equality of women in the workforce and education system, those nations have experienced corresponding decreases in maternal death rates and sharp declines in adolescent pregnancy rates.(International Monetary Fund, 2018) Additionally, nations that have pursued increased gender equality in their societies have experienced increases to their economic growth.
In September 2015, 193 UN member nations, including Saudi Arabia, signed on to the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). As described by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon the SDG is “a roadmap to ending global poverty, building a life of dignity for all and leaving no one behind. It is also a clarion call to work in partnership and intensify efforts to share prosperity, empower people’s livelihoods, ensure peace and heal our planet for the benefit of this and future generation” and includes 17 specific goals to meeting sustainable development. The fifth goal is “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.”(Kutesa, 2015) Some of the most significant gains in the Saudi women’s right movement have in fact been achieved since the implementation of SDG: suffrage (2015), head of Saudi stock exchange (2017), access to sports stadiums (2018), driving ban eliminated (2018), and women must be notified of a divorce petition (2019). (Deutsche Welle, 2019)
The reforms that have been implemented by the Saudis have been so recent that there is not a lot of long-term analysis of the effects from the progress in women’s rights. The early studies though are showing promising results up to this point. The brightest area for Saudi women is in education. The five-year plan launched in 2014 earmarked $21.33 billion for the education sector and established the King Abdullah Sponsorship Programme (KASP) for Saudi students to attend higher education programs overseas. Currently, Saudi women represent 1/3 of students in the program. Their percentages rise the higher the degree is – 41.91% of Saudi PhD students are women. (Alsubaie & Jones, 2017)While Saudi Arabia still ranks 105th globally for equality of education, it has also been ranked fifth for making progress towards equality. It is not just women attending higher education that has increased. There has also been an exponential increase in the number of Saudi women who are lecturers at the university level. In academic year 2003/2004, there were approximately 4700 Saudi women lecturers. (Alsubaie & Jones, 2017) In five short years, that number had increased to 19,600. Saudi male students are seeing Saudi women in leadership positions in their education and that can only lead to future opportunities for women as these men go out into the workplace and bring their positive experiences with them.
As the education of women has steadily increased, Saudi women are becoming more visible in the workplace. In just three years (2009-2012), the number of Saudi women in the workforce has increased from 48,000 to over 200,000. Saudi women’s participation in the workforce is not just improving the overall economic outlook for the KSA, women’s participation is having a direct effect on the macroeconomics of their homes and their local communities. Women have different spending patterns than their male counterparts. Saudi women tend to spend their earnings “to promote their children’s health and education.” (Saqib, Aggarwal , & Rashid, 2016)Socially, allowing women to work automatically grants them greater freedom – financial independence from families and husbands, something they lacked in the past. “Divorced or widowed women increasingly seek out employment to support themselves, instead of relying on their extended families” or the government welfare system.(Kelly, 2009).
Finally, Saudi Arabia adopted the Protection from Abuse Act in 2013; a clear sign that the women’s rights movement had finally highlighted the domestic violence problem that was easily hidden behind the veils and abayahs worn whenever women were out in public. The most significant fact that is revealed by passing this important piece of legislature is a simple one – Saudi women and girls are worthy of protection. They are important members of their society and Saudi men will not be allowed to continue to abuse them. Of course, even with this important law in place, domestic abuse continues. But combining the legal repercussions of this law with the importance of their right to drive and go out in public, Saudi women have to ability to get to police stations to report abuse and to get to women’s shelters to seek help and find safety from their abusers.(Alhabdan, 2015)Economic independence has been an effective defense against domestic violence. Saudi women who work outside the home and have an independent income stream are less likely to remain in an abusive relationship. One of the most commonly sighted reasons that keep Saudi Arabian women in an abusive relationship is the fear of poverty. (Alhabdan, 2015) So here is to hoping the still-limited progress in terms of women’s freedom from abuse will continue strongly within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.